Russians vote in election that holds little suspense after Putin crushed dissent

15 March 2024, 19:04

A student leaves a voting booth at a polling station in Russia
APTOPIX Russia Election. Picture: PA

The election takes place against the backdrop of a ruthless crackdown that has crippled independent media and prominent rights groups.

Voters are heading to the polls in Russia for a three-day presidential election that is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule by six more years after he stifled dissent.

At least half a dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations were reported, including a firebombing.

The election takes place against the backdrop of a ruthless crackdown that has crippled independent media and prominent rights groups and given Mr Putin full control of the political system.

It also comes as Moscow’s war in Ukraine enters its third year. Russia has the advantage on the battlefield, where it is making small, if slow, gains. A Russian missile strike on the port city of Odesa killed at least 14 people on Friday, local officials said.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has made Moscow look vulnerable behind the front line: Long-range drone attacks have struck deep inside Russia, while high-tech drones have put its Black Sea fleet on the defensive.

On Friday Mr Putin described the attacks as an attempt to frighten residents and derail the vote.

“Those enemy strikes haven’t been and won’t be left unpunished,” he vowed at a meeting of his Security Council.

“I’m sure that our people, the people of Russia, will respond to that with even greater cohesion,” Mr Putin said. “Whom did they decide to scare? The Russian people? It has never happened and it will never happen.”

Russian regions bordering Ukraine have reported several attempts by Ukrainian fighters to take towns this week. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that “it is beyond any doubt that they are related one way or another to attempts to cast a shadow on the elections”.

Voters are casting their ballots from Friday through to Sunday at polling stations across the vast country’s 11 time zones, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine and online.

Mr Putin cast his ballot online, according to the Kremlin.

A woman casts a ballot in the Siberian city of Omsk
A woman casts a ballot in the Siberian city of Omsk (AP)

Officials said that voting was proceeding in an orderly fashion.

But in St Petersburg, a woman threw a Molotov cocktail onto the roof of a school that houses a polling station, local news media reported. The deputy head of the Russian Central Election Commission said people poured green liquid into ballot boxes in five places, including in Moscow.

News sites also reported on the Telegram messaging channel that a woman in Moscow set fire to a voting booth. Such acts are incredibly risky since interfering with elections is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The election holds little suspense since Mr Putin, 71, is running for his fifth term virtually unchallenged.

His political opponents are either in jail or in exile abroad, and the fiercest of them, Alexei Navalny, died in a remote Arctic penal colony last month. The three other candidates on the ballot are low-profile politicians from token opposition parties.

Observers have little to no expectation that the election will be free and fair. Beyond the fact that voters have been presented with little choice, the possibilities for independent monitoring are very limited.

Only registered candidates or state-backed advisory bodies can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of independent watchdogs. With balloting over three days in nearly 100,000 polling stations in the country, any true monitoring is difficult anyway.

“The elections in Russia as a whole are a sham. The Kremlin controls who’s on the ballot. The Kremlin controls how they can campaign. To say nothing of being able to control every aspect of the voting and the vote-counting process,” said Sam Greene, director for Democratic Resilience at the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

And European Council President Charles Michel commented on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday on the vote’s preordained nature: “Would like to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his landslide victory in the elections starting today. No opposition. No freedom. No choice.”

Ukraine and the West have also condemned Russia for holding the vote in Ukrainian regions that Moscow’s forces have seized and occupied.

Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin is running for his fifth term virtually unchallenged (Sergey Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In many ways, Ukraine is at the heart of this election, political analysts and opposition figures say. They say Mr Putin wants to use his all-but-assured electoral victory as evidence that the war and his handling of it enjoys widespread support. The opposition, meanwhile, hopes to use the vote to demonstrate their discontent with both the war and the Kremlin.

The Kremlin banned two politicians from the ballot who sought to run on an anti-war agenda and attracted genuine — albeit not overwhelming — support, thus depriving the voters of any choice on the “main issue of Russia’s political agenda”, said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, who used to work as Mr Putin’s speechwriter.

Russia’s scattered opposition has urged those unhappy with Mr Putin or the war to show up at the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, in protest. The strategy was endorsed by Mr Navalny not long before his death.

“We need to use election day to show that we exist and there are many of us, we are actual, living, real people and we are against Putin. … What to do next is up to you. You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You could ruin your ballot,” his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said.

How well this strategy will work remains unclear.

Golos, Russia’s renowned independent election observer group, said in a report this week that authorities were “doing everything so that the people don’t notice the very fact of the election happening”.

A man casts a ballot at a polling station
People voting in Vladivostok (AP)

The watchdog described the campaign ahead of the vote as “practically unnoticeable” and “the most vapid” since 2000, when Golos was founded and started monitoring elections in Russia.

Mr Putin’s campaigning was cloaked in presidential activities, and other candidates were “demonstrably passive”, the report said.

State media dedicated less airtime to the election than in 2018, when Mr Putin was last elected, according to Golos. Instead of promoting the vote to ensure a desired turnout, authorities appear to be betting on pressuring voters they can control — for instance, Russians who work in state-run companies or institutions — to show up at the polls, the group said.

The watchdog itself has also been swept up in the crackdown: Its co-chair, Grigory Melkonyants, is in jail awaiting trial on charges widely seen as an attempt to pressure the group ahead of the election.

“The current elections will not be able to reflect the real mood of the people,” Golos said in the report. “The distance between citizens and decision-making about the fate of the country has become greater than ever.”

By the time polls closed on Friday night at Russia’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad, more than a third of the country’s eligible voters had cast ballots in person and online, according to the Central Election Commission.

Online voting, which began Friday morning, is available around the clock in Moscow and 28 other regions until 8pm local time Sunday.

By Press Association

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